OpinionJewish Diaspora

Understanding the as-a-Jew Jew

To be a Jew defending Israel is to be suspect of tribal bias. To be a Jew condemning Israel is to be a whistleblower.

From left: James Wilson, Leonard Blavatnik and Jonathan Glazer accept the Oscar for Best International Feature Film “The Zone of Interest” during the live “ABC” telecast of the 96th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on March 10, 2024. Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
From left: James Wilson, Leonard Blavatnik and Jonathan Glazer accept the Oscar for Best International Feature Film “The Zone of Interest” during the live “ABC” telecast of the 96th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on March 10, 2024. Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Matthew Schultz
Matthew Schultz

In the Passover Haggadah, we read of the wicked son, who scornfully asks, “What is this worship to you?”

To you and not to him, the Haggadah stresses. This is what makes him wicked. He has separated himself from the community. 

The wicked sons of today, however, preface their scorn with a proud declaration of Jewish identification. 

They are anti-Zionist. They accuse Israel of genocide and liken the IDF to Nazis. They oppose Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. And they want you to know that they do all this as Jews.

When Jewish director Jonathan Glazer framed his condemnation of Israel as a matter of Jewish principle, he became the poster child for this new archetype. There’s also actress Cynthia Nixon (“as the mother of Jewish children”); Chuck Schumer (“I speak as a member of a community of Jewish Americans”); Wallace Shawn (“Jews say ceasefire now!”) and many others.

What motivates this “as-a-Jew” Jew? 

One answer is that they want Israel to act according to their own personal sense of Jewish values. The irony, of course, is that these are the same people who think Israel needs less mixing of shul and state, not more. Nevertheless, they think the religious sentiments of Jewish noncitizens should direct Israel’s security policy.

Another answer would be that they think their Jewishness confers credibility. To be a Jew defending Israel is to be suspect of tribal bias. To be a Jew condemning Israel is to be a whistleblower. 

Others might choose to pathologize the as-a-Jew Jew, diagnosing him as a troubled sufferer of internalized antisemitism.

The truth is simpler than any of these explanations. The as-a-Jew Jew pairs condemnations of Israel with references to Jewish identity because, for him or her, the two things are one and the same. To be a good Jew is to condemn Israel. 

This was made abundantly clear by a recent Washington Post essay written by journalist Peter Maass titled, “I’m Jewish, and I’ve covered wars. I know war crimes when I see them.” 

The essay begins with a confession: Maass is a “war-crimes reporter” whose “family bankrolled a nation that’s committing war crimes.” 

“My ancestors were key funders of Jewish immigration to British-controlled Palestine,” he writes. Later, we learn, they also raised millions for the nascent State of Israel during the War of Independence in 1948.

In other words, his ancestors helped rescue and resettle Jews during the most deadly chapter of our history, and when the Arab League attempted to finish off any Jews that Hitler had missed, his ancestors raised money to help them defend themselves. 

Some might feel proud of such a heritage, but Maass identifies this as a source of psychic tension and Jewish guilt, a term which increasingly refers to the sense of innate shame that all Jews are supposed to feel for the fact of Israel’s existence.

As anti-Zionist Rabbi May Ye stated in an interview with the Jewish Women’s Archive, “Naming that I was Jewish, for me, meant recognizing in the same breath that there was blood on my hands.”  

“Millions of Jews in America feel connected to Israel’s creation,” Maass writes, by which he means that millions of Jews in America are stained by this original sin. That can’t be changed—but we can do penance. 

“What’s a Jew to do now?” Maass asks. The answer: Stand “against any nation that commits war crimes. Any.”

He italicizes “any” as if his Jewish principles are so strong that they must come to bear even on the Jewish state. In truth, it’s not a matter of “even Israel” but of “only Israel.” I’m sure there are other countries that Maass has singled out for criticism. But I sincerely doubt there are any other countries whose very existence he opposes as a matter of religious principle. 

After some more offensive drivel (“The victims of genocide—which Jews were in the Holocaust—are not gifted with the right to perpetrate one”) he arrives to what might be said to be the heart of his essay—and the key to understanding the as-a-Jew Jews. 

“My Jewish identity was always a bit vague,” he writes. “When I was growing up, we even had a Christmas tree.” Later in life, when he saw that opposing Israel was increasingly recognized as “an act of Jewish identity,” he realized that this “felt right for him too.” 

Unlike the wicked son of the Haggadah, this new Jewish archetype turns out to be neither snide nor mocking, but rather shamefaced and afraid of losing his last connection to the rich Jewish heritage of his ancestors—the very ones whose heroic legacy of Zionist activism has caused him so much angst.

Originally published by The Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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